The Factory Witches of Lowell – Could Have Used More Time In The Loom

71frdjxulIt’s really hard to avoid reading about the conditions that a lot of people are working under today. Before the pandemic it was already questionable, especially with the rise of the gig economy. But the pandemic, particularly in the United States, has brought a lot of those issues into sharp detail. So when I heard of a book about a group of women banding together to strike in the nineteenth century using magic, I was instantly sold. I know it’s not exactly a solution to our current predicaments (I wish it was), but because stories about solidarity are so rare, it’s important to read stories that focus on actually banding together. It’s a nice and (in my opinion) important break from the single good guy/girl protagonist who “wins” through sheer willpower. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is a book about such solidarity that scratches the surface of labor history in the Northeastern United States. It serves as an interesting exploration of these ideas but falls short in delivering a solid story.

Our story follows the exploits of women workers in the milltown of Lowell, Massachusetts, adding a fantastical flair to real life events of 1836. The two main characters are Judith, the ringleader of the strike, and Hannah, one who still practices the forgotten art of witchcraft. There is a budding romance between the two as they navigate the strike, facing opposition from management and helping to keep the other women involved. Magic isn’t a silver bullet in their schemes, so while Hannah practices, she still has to work to find the right spells to counteract the papercraft of capital. How can a young group of women succeed, when there have been several attempts before them? Will the magic be enough?

Promisingly, the book opens in media res, with the women performing magic during a strike planning session. There is a sense of wonder that fills the pages; the reader is introduced to the characters as they submit their hair to the collective spell. This spell would in essence form a magical bond of solidarity, preventing women from crossing the picket line at the promise of individual benefit from management. What I particularly enjoyed about the magic in Witches is how cleverly Malerich interweaved it into the class politics and machinations of capitalism. Setting Hannah up as someone who understood the basic tenets, but had to use her foundations to analyze and build new spells was really fun, and also fairly informative from a material analysis perspective (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Beyond the magic, however, I had a hard time connecting with the story, and I think that is mostly due to its length. Witches relies a lot on the historical aspect as a given, and people’s common understanding that working conditions in the nineteenth century were awful and extremely exploitative. There are tidbits here and there about the specifics of working conditions such as the kiss of death (in which women had to inhale the string through loops, thus inhaling the linens and dust, developing coughs), but I never got a general sense of their lives. While I understand that there probably was not much of a life outside of work in these conditions, I barely got a sense of who the women wanted to be outside work, or if they even saw the work as important. It was a fairly large cast of characters, centered around two particular women, but overall most of the characters barely had any defining traits even though they were often talked about in reverent and defining ways. I get that there is a very fine line to walk before you stray into anachronism, or modern progressive ideals showing up in historical fiction, but I had a hard time caring about the strike beyond my already pro-labor power tendencies. I’m not saying this had to be a “teachable moment” — it is fiction and deserves to be fun, I just mean that purely from a story standpoint I did not buy in. I think I expected historical fiction with a charming fantasy twist, but I just got the charming fantasy twist with historical labor trivia thrown in.

In the end it’s hard to say how much of this could be made more compelling with length, because I do think that’s my major complaint with the book. Witches is 120 pages, and so much is crammed into it. Everything moves so fast, there’s no time to appreciate the characters or their struggles. The texture of their lives feels missing, and while there are plenty of dissections of the book from a political perspective that are enlightening (if you are interested, I definitely recommend looking into them because there is a lot to learn about), I had trouble with it as a story. I wish it was a little less subtle, and had more “oomph” to the narrative. I still liked it and loved the way Malerich used magic in a grounded way to highlight how capitalism as a system functions. However, I wanted more from it, and maybe that’s a personal problem.

Rating: Factory Witches of Lowell – 6.0/10

A Brightness Long Ago – Cherished Memories And Lessons Learned

Originally I wasn’t going to review this book because it is by Guy Gavriel Kay, and here at The Quill to Live we basically have a blanket recommendation for anything he has ever written. His ability to churn out a powerful novel that is equal parts historical fiction, fantasy, and love note to history is well known. However, it is very likely that A Brightness Long Ago will be our book of the year – thus it seemed important that we actually review it. So here you go: as always, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This book is utterly beautiful, heartbreaking, and will be a favorite of anyone who has a pulse. There you go, review over. What, you want more? Fine, I will actually do my job.

A Brightness Long Ago, according to Kay’s book blurb, “is set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy”. Unfortunately, because I am an uncultured peasant, I am not familiar enough with European history to have recognized that without his prompting. While some of Kay’s books feel extremely evocative of specific historical times and events, Brightness felt less rooted in real events than some of the other Kay books I have read. As with all Kay books, the story is focused on small individuals who experience moments of something bigger than themselves. In this instance, the larger world events revolve around a long slow conflict between two powerful military leaders: Folco and Teobaldo. They are two proud, brilliant, and unyielding men who are vying to leave their mark on the world. The book follows a continent-sized chess match between these two titanic personalities and explores a number of their attempts to seize power from surrounding powers. Although they are the focus of the plot, the book is much more about the lives that they touch and change in their momentous conflict. In particular, our primary POVs are Danio and Adria – a man of some learning who continuously finds himself at the center of climactic events due to the choices he makes, and a woman who rejects the mantle of aristocracy because she wanted to do something that matters.

This is a tale of people learning about how the world works, seeing how they can change it, and the decisions they make when push comes to shove. It’s a story of how people are forged by their surroundings, and how they can rise to be more or fall to be less. It’s about decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye that profoundly change the course of the decider’s life one way or another. It’s about one of my favorite subjects – the quiet unrecognized achievements of the people who changed the world, but what they did will never be known to anyone but themselves. It’s about people who run towards ambition and influence, and those that do everything they can to live quiet lives and accept the influence of others being thrust upon them. All of these small things that A Brightness Long Ago is about builds to a deafening crescendo of emotion, poetry, and commentary on the human condition that make it one of my favorite books I have ever read.

I love this book so damn much for so many reasons. Kay’s characters are always perfect, but I haven’t liked a cast this much outside Sailing to Sarantium – Danio and Adria stole my heart and won’t give it back. Kay’s stories usually focus on ordinary people who hear gunshots and run towards the sound. However, Brightness has an interesting mix of characters who seek momentous events out, and those who actively avoid them. For those who have read a number of his other pieces, I feel you will find some interesting fresh personalities in Brightness that defy the expectations of even the most well-read readers.

A Brightness Long Ago was a flawless piece of literature that left me crying on a plane, kept me up to 5 AM on the edge of my seat, and challenged me to really think about the decisions you make in life. Every single thing that Kay makes is excellent, and this is one of his best. A Brightness Long Ago simply begs to be read and I don’t want to know the person who doesn’t enjoy it. As I said in my first paragraph, Kay has crafted a masterpiece of prose, commentary on the human condition, believable characters, and exploration of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Rating: A Brightness Long Ago – 10/10

The Lions Of Al-Rassan – The Meaning Of Loyalty

51LJr0L05CL._SX330_BO1204203200_It will come as no surprise that I loved today’s book, The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. We at Quill consider Kay to be one of the best authors currently in the fantasy and science-fiction scene, and when we read one of his books it is less a question of “is it good”, and more a question of “how good is it?” To immediately answer that question, the answer is: really, really, good. The Lions of Al-Rassan is a masterpiece that everyone should read and just barely loses out to Sailing to Sarantium as my favorite Kay book of all time.

Lions is ostensibly a historical fiction based on the civil wars, and eventual unification, of Spain. I think. I am not a historian, so my knowledge of this time period and the metaphors that Kay uses are not the best. Regardless, the book tells the story of a country divided by kings (lions). Kings are everywhere, popping up one after another, and each claims to be the true heir and inheritor to the land around them. On top of this, there is a panoply of warring religions in the region that are all vying for dominance in the form of religious genocide. As you might guess, these conditions make for extremely turbulent, dangerous, and fluid times where power structures and the hierarchies of nations are changing constantly. In the midst of all of this, our story follows four “advisors” to various kings and gives a poetic dissertation on loyalty and the difficulties of being a good person, and doing the right thing, in nebulous times.

Our leads are Jehane, Ammar, Rodrigo, and Alivar – four brilliant and talented individuals that shine brighter than stars on a moonless night. If I were to pick a true “protagonist” it would have to be Jehane. She is a doctor, and one of the best in all the land. Through her work as a neutral healer, she finds herself welcome in almost every court and land and is constantly in demand from the multitude of kings in contention. Next, we have Ammar – warrior, poet, and tactician. Ammar is possibly the greatest mind of an age and second to the most powerful king (currently) in Al-Rassan. However, he has had to do many terrible things for his lieges and is finding it harder to be true to himself. Then we have Rodrigo, Ammar’s counterpart in a rival faction. Rodrigo is a charismatic leader, beloved by his men, and possibly the single best fighter in the entire country. He and his band of 150 horsemen of Jad struggle with being true to their kingdom, and its zealous religious faith, while internally struggling with some of the doctrines and beliefs of their land. Finally, we have Alivar – one of Rodrigo’s aforementioned 150 horsemen – who is young, naive, and trying to make his way in the world. Through Alivar’s eyes we witness a young man who has a talent for war, but a mind that desires peace.

The characters in Lions are frankly phenomenal. I deeply love every single one and Kay shattered my heart at least five times over the course of the book. The story is just beautiful and feels like it speaks to good people trying to be good in situations where there are no good options. I found Lions asking me to think about smart questions I had never considered before, such as “what do we owe our children?”, and found it to be a very thought-provoking and contemplative book. It helped me grow a little as a person, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest trait a book can have. It also did this while showing me a positively fabulous time. On top of the characters being genuine joys to be around, the book is funny and fun when it is not being sad. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in can be hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is a standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read.

There is absolutely nothing imperfect about The Lions of Al-Rassan. The pages of this thoughtful story are poetry for the heart and this book would easily place in my top 100 of all time. The characters are eternally memorable, the prose is top-in-class, and the story is engrossing from beginning to end. The Lions of Al-Rassan is a masterpiece of fiction and a book that should be on every person’s must-read list.

Rating: The Lions of Al-Rassan – 10/10

Bridge of Birds – Can’t See The Flock For The Fowls

15177The pun in my title would work a lot better if this book had been bad, but alas, it was amazing. Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, is an underappreciated fantasy gem from the 80’s that I feel more people should know about. On the surface, it is a simple and elegant alternative history story set inChina, describing the journey of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in dealing with a mysterious disease. The book is told in style reminiscent of a traditional fable and jumps between many small stories with clear morals that seem loosely connected. However, under the seemingly shallow exterior of this tale lies a deep and complex story that is just waiting to be discovered.

As mentioned, the plot of Bridge of Birds is ostensibly a simple one: the young Number Ten Ox lives in a small village that falls victim to a plague. In order to heal this malady, Ox goes to a nearby city to find a wise man. There, he locates the venerable Master Li who agrees to assist him. They identify a potential cure to the plague, a rare root of power, and go on a multi-stage quest to find it. Simple, clean, clear – that is how the plot of Bridge of Birds portrays itself. It is a lie. There is a lot going on in this book, much of it below the surface. There are three or four stories beautifully intertwined in the book, and the deeper you go, the more you will realize that the book has a lot more going on than simple morals. It is a cleverly crafted, and intensely planned, novel that will lure you in with its great humor and fun antics, and pull the rug out from under you.

Speaking of humor, the book is hilarious. Not in the typical laugh-out-loud way, but in a more contextual hilarity sort of way. Each chapter functions as a small tale where the Ox learns a valuable lesson; and the themes rotate between wisdom, hilarity, and melancholy. The full cast of the book is massive for its size, with each chapter often introducing new characters that sometimes only stick around until the end of that section. While many of these characters are fairly shallow and one dimensional, a number of the cast (in particular Li and Ox) feel both like they have a nice depth to them and like they go through some good character arcs.

If you are a long time reader of the site you will know that I am a huge sucker for powerful narrative techniques, and Bridge of Birds delivers on this in spades. I am not Chinese, but I got the distinct impression that Barry Hughart had a good understanding of the country’s lore and storytelling styles – as the book feels like it was lifted straight out of Chinese fable. Hughart uses this narrative style to make the book feel welcoming and warm to all ages, even when there are some truly gruesome and violent scenes. I initially thought that this would be a great book to read to my someday children until I saw what the upbeat tone hid under the surface. The style serves to make the story feel more emotionally impactful and deep, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the narrative effect than a quote from the book itself: “Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can”.

The prose and writing are also top-notch. There were numerous times that Hughart’s descriptives, of both positive and negative experiences, elicited a physical response from me due to their evocative nature. Hughart has crafted a book that is endlessly quotable, with many lines burning themselves into my memory out of pure brilliance. Which brings me to what I would consider Bridge of Bird’s strongest attribute – it is incredibly memorable. For such a small book, it holds an impressive emotional weight. I can still remember almost every chapter clearly after finishing it, and I already want to reread it to see what I missed. Everything in the book had a profound way of coming together in the end, and I bet I missed a ton of small hints and nods as I bumbled my way through the tale.

Bridge of Birds is a masterpiece and one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. This small book was a part of our yearly book club and now has the esteemed honor of being our highest rated book – ever. Every one of us who picked it up was moved by its words and clever philosophies, and I would be willing to bet money that the effect is not localized to us. If you haven’t had the chance to read this incredible book, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience. For I may have a small flaw in my character, but my recommendation for this book is certainly not a part of it.

Rating: Bridge of Birds – 10/10

Amberlough – Cabar-OK

310226cac27c16c221408af59517ff1cSo I debated whether or not to even review this book because I think my net summary is “it wasn’t for me”. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly, is the first book in The Amberlough Dossier, and has a cool concept: fantasy spy thriller that revolves around a cabaret. I am really big on the fantasy spy novels so I decided to check it out… and found that I didn’t like a lot of things I probably should have expected from the synopsis. I will go into all of this in detail, but let’s first talk about the plot.

Amberlough follows three character POVs: Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia. They live in a time of upheaval and change in the city of Amberlough and all have connections to the Bee cabaret. Cyril is a government spy (and patron of the Bee), taken off active duty for a traumatic injury, but is being sent back out in the field. Aristide is a showman at the Bee at night, and a smuggler by… also night, he doesn’t have a lot of work/life balance. Cordelia is a dancer at the Bee and is looking to move up in a turbulent world. All of them are dealing with the fact that a right wing religious movement is sweeping through Amberlough and trying to destroy their heathen lifestyles.

A major pillar of the book’s story is that Cyril and Aristide are in love, but their jobs keep either of them from admitting it to one another. A lot of people I talked to found this really romantic, but I frankly found it frustrating that their entire stories could be resolved by the two of them admitting they had feelings for one another. Cordelia is the odd man (woman) out here. Her story felt a little aimless at the start, but midway through she finds herself embroiled with the underground politics that Cyril and Aristide participate in. In terms of character writing, both Aristide and Cordelia were a lot of fun – but Cyril was not amazing. He constantly feels like he is just reacting (poorly) to the world around him and he didn’t do a lot to get me routing for him other than dating Aristide (which made me want him to survive only to keep Aristide happy).

For a book that promised a fantasy spy thriller, there was surprisingly little of either. The only real fantasy element of the book is that it takes place in a different world, but it is clearly based on pre-Nazi Germany and I don’t really get why the author didn’t just write a more standard fiction. There were a few moments of spy craft, in particular a 30 page stint of Cyril in the field. However, most of the book is really about talking about talking about the threat of Nazis and then trying to not die to Nazis. There was also an aggressive amount of sex in the books. I don’t really know what I expected when I picked up a book surrounding cabaret, so this one is on me, but it felt like so much page space was devoted to sex scenes that there was not enough room to do other things like develop the plot.

Despite all these comments, I did stick with Amberlough to the end out of a curiosity to see what happened to the characters. Cordelia in particular seems like she is being set up to become someone incredible and I am pretty curious to see where her story goes (and she might be enough to get me to pick up book two). She had some really nice character development over the course of the book and she seems like a clever girl with a lot of potential to wreak havoc during a Nazi occupation. However, Cyril feels kind of like a millstone around my neck and will likely keep me from continuing with the series. I am sure that there are a number of people out there who will love this, but sometimes it is important to know when to look at something and say “this isn’t for me”.

Rating: Amberlough – 5.0/10

Circe – Improving On Perfection

202009_1329888I am super tired of hearing about Odysseus. Look, he was an incredible hero of popular lore, and his story is great, but holy hells has his tale been retold a lot of times. My personal favorite version of his story is actually the trilogy by David Gemmell, starting with Lord of the Silver Bow, and I sincerely doubt anyone can top it so could we all just stop trying to retell the story of Odysseus… is what I would have said about a month ago if you asked, but then I read Circe, by Madeline Miller. Honestly, I am kinda late to the game to this one due to my reservations, and you probably know all about this, but I feel obligated to talk about it anyway because man is this a good book. Review spoilers, this thing is a hard 10/10 and everyone should read it, but I will still go through the motions like the consummate professional that I am.

Circe is one of those books that hits cult popularity on its quality alone. Apparently Madeline is famous for a different incredible historical fiction she wrote about Achilles, and I just missed the memo. However, I am here now to give my two cents: which are that everyone is right, Madeline is the real deal. Circe follows the story of, unsurprisingly, Circe – the witch that helps Odysseus in his travels. I was vaguely aware of her full story going into the novel, but Madeline somehow managed to both keep true to the tales and make me feel like I was reading Greek myths for the first time. Circe’s story starts with her time on Olympus, and catalogues her life among the gods until her eventual exile. That part covers the first half of the book, with the second following her relationship to Odysseus.

Really, the main selling point of this book is that it might have the best prose I have ever read. Her use of words is on par with any of the best prose writers of all time, and who you think is best will honestly come down to personal preference. She manages to hit the perfect combination of both flowing flowery language and a lack of pretentious writing. Her vivid descriptions will pull you in, and flood you with empathy for every character so that you feel as if you are living the book. The pacing is fast and exciting, and her take on all the myths is original and refreshing, but still feel very true.

The other thing that helps this book stand out is that it’s one of the few Greek myth novels I have read that treats the gods as more than a vague catalyst. The Greek gods are often humanized well, but they usually exist to force the actions of heroes in stories and are honestly rarely explored themselves. Circe gives a fascinating look into the daily life and politics of Mount Olympus that had me engrossed. I felt the same joy reading this book as I did as a young boy hearing about the Greek pantheon for the first time.

Circe has no flaws that I could find, and the only way I could imagine someone disliking this book is if they hated the subject matter. Madeline Miller is an once-in-a-generation talent who I will now be following closely for the rest of her career. I know I am late to this party, but if any of you are holding out on this popular book because you think it is overhyped: take it from a hold out – Circe is the real deal.

Rating: Circe – 10/10

His Majesty’s Dragon – A Good Ole English Time

I have finally gotten around to reading one of the most popular fantasy series from the last decade, Temeraire, by Naomi Novik. The nine book series starts with His Majesty’s Dragon, and has just concluded last year with its final installment. The series is a historical fiction set in the Napoleonic Wars, with almost everything the same except that everyone has dragons. This book has been on my to do list for a long time and I was excited to see if it lived up to the hype.


Our protagonist is a man named Laurence, former captain of His Majesty’s Navy, who gets unfortunately coerced into the aerial corps. Laurence, and the ship under his command, open the book by capturing a French vessel that contains a dragon egg about to hatch. Due to the value and importance of dragons to the war against France, the officers of the ship decide they need to have someone try and imprint with the dragon as it hatches to recruit it for England’s forces. Unsurprisingly, the dragon (Temeraire) imprints on Laurence.

The rest of the book follows Laurence as he transitions from his life as a naval man to the air force and begins his training with Temeraire. Novik does a great job of showing the life of a dragon rider, and the training of Temeraire had me captivated from the moment that they set down at boot camp. The dragon corps and its effect on England’s wartime strategies are very well fleshed out and integrated into the history of the Napoleonic wars. That being said, while Novik did a great job showing how dragons have impacted the current era wars of England, there was little to no indication of how the advent of war dragons affected the course of human history. It felt as though they had just showed up right before the start of this book and the rest of history stayed pretty much the same. However, this is an instance where I am hoping that the historical effects of dragons is explored in the later sequels.

In terms of characters, we kind of get a mixed boat. I was a big fan of Temeraire. The dragons have a lot of personality, and watching Temeraire explore the world and learn things was incredibly endearing. On the other hand, Laurence is a bit of a wet noodle. He is the most stereotypical English character I have ever read, whose idea of a good time is queuing in a line. While Laurence doesn’t really detract from the story, another reviewer I saw put it best when she said “we could have had Jack Sparrow, but instead we got James Norrington”. Moving past our leads, I found the support cast very strong. Laurence spends a good part of the book recruiting a crew for Temeraire, and I found his underlings and fellow dragon captains a lot of fun.

Overall, the book was fun but slightly on the dull side. The final conflict of book is a bit of a let down, but the build up and the reveals are exciting. I will definitely be continuing the series, as I suspect that it is a bad idea to judge the series from just its first installment. Overall if you like dragons, historical fiction, or queuing in lines than this will be a great book for you.

Rating: His Majesty’s Dragon – 7.5/10